Sunday, December 14, 2008

Compliments That Catch One off Guard and the Value of Blogging

This week, in two separate conversations, I had colleagues compliment me on what I can only describe as the fact that I'm "savvy" about departmental/university politics. In both cases, I was sort of caught off guard, as I'd never consciously characterize myself as being particularly special in this regard, and also because it's weird to have your colleagues note it in a complimentary way to you. Usually, when people talk about the office politics of academe, they talk about them in ways that make it seem like if you "play the game" that you're a tool of the administration, or that you're some kind of intellectual fraud, or that you're conniving, or whatever. But in both of the conversations that I had, my colleagues expressed admiration for the fact that I can synthesize the political interests of certain happenings on campus quickly and that I have found a way to negotiate the political terrain here to my advantage without making enemies.

[Aside: this is a reason why probably I would be well suited to administration. I think it's probably fair to say that I am good at these things, not because I've tried to be but just because I'm naturally inclined in that way (which is actually a good quality that I've inherited from my biological father and not from my mother or G, who are hotheads and who have no ability to scan the political terrain and to navigate it), and so this would incline me toward administrative sorts of things if I wanted to go in that direction. The problem, though, is that I often feel resistant to doing this sort of thing because I have to do it, and so this is why I am ambivalent about the administrative track, among other reasons. But I digress.]

But as I've been processing these conversations, it occurs to me that part of my skills in these areas have been developed through my participation in this community of bloggers. Unlike people who don't blog, I think that I just think about this stuff in more concrete ways more frequently, which helps one to navigate the political crap more easily in my actual professional life. I've often thought to myself that one of the biggest things I get out of blogging is that it lets me think about the institution of academe in structural ways and to have conversations about that, which I'm not sure I could do in another context, or at the very least that I couldn't do as easily as a junior faculty member. While it's true that everybody talks about this crap in a local way with colleagues, or in a bitching way with friends, blogging forces me to see the big picture, and I think that helps me to translate what I think about here into my "real life" professional life in ways that are positive.

But then I wonder what comes first, the blogging or the egg? Or the chicken or the political savvyness? I'm not sure if it's possible to answer that question. But what's interesting to me as I continue to think about all of this is how much "academic blogging" can contribute to demystifying this stuff, which is often mundane and which is often downplayed or disregarded in the service of More Important Things, like Academic Freedom or Adjunctification or Intellectual Inquiry or Teaching Excellence. The thing is, most political things that I've encountered in my career as a professor and even in graduate school are much less sexy but are also much more intrinsic to whether it's possible to do one's job effectively and without undue drama. No, when one's classes are scheduled isn't the most important thing in the world in contrast to the typical Capital Letter sorts of conversations. Or how much control one has over which classes one teaches, or which classes that one teaches "count" for what in the curriculum. Or whether one is asked to serve on X committee or Y committee. But at the end of the day, I often think these little things - which require one to exercise political acumen in order to make sure that one has the most advantageous professional situation possible for oneself - are intrinsic to one's experience of the academy. I think if one tries to ignore the politics that circumscribe these "little things" that one often is left out of the conversation altogether, and one is left feeling totally disenfranchised.

I've often thought that there's no virtue in keeping one's head down in the service of not making enemies or of just surviving in this professional world. It has often seemed to me that the people who find a way to speak up (not necessarily in ways that are controversial, esp. for grad students or for junior faculty or adjuncts) are more likely to get what they need to thrive. And as I said to one of my colleagues, I think part of the reason why I had to learn to be politically savvy is because I'm not good at shutting up, and so I'd better know how to speak up without shooting myself in the foot.

What occurs to me the more that I've been thinking about these conversations, though, is that I think I got complimented in that particular way because I'm a woman who does these things. I think that's what makes this quality in me noteworthy, in part because women are socialized in exactly the opposite direction both in our culture generally and in this profession specifically. While it's true that the standard advice to all young academics is to keep one's head down, it strikes me that women academics are much more frequently the ones who actually do this - to their detriment. Being a good colleague doesn't mean being a shadow in the room. It just means not making enemies. And that requires a certain level of engagement with the politics and a certain confidence in one's own worth. And I think that I came to this profession with those things intact, and that's been good for me, but that's accidental. What I think is so valuable about academic blogs is that maybe they can show people who don't come to the profession with those natural inclinations what's at stake in not engaging or in not having that confidence. And it can model ways in which people further along on the path navigate the political terrain of academe in ways that we don't often see clearly as students when we look at our advisers or professors.

And I'll go further: I think that's precisely the value of academic blogs by people who choose to go by pseudonyms, and who choose not to characterize their blogs as "professional" documents. Because the fact of the matter is, how can you talk about this nit-picky shit under your Name without looking like a tool? We're all supposed to be leading a life of the mind, right? Except this is a job - not a vocation - and as much as we do get to think about cool shit, there are political interests that determine when, how, and where we think about these things. And that's not wrong to acknowledge that, and in fact it's probably a really good thing, but it doesn't quite go with the whole pipe-smoking, elbow-patched jacket image of who we are.


life_of_a_fool said...

I love this post. I especially love the distinction you make between speaking up and making enemies -- not necessarily the same thing! I loathe the advice that you should keep your head down as a junior faculty member, and I very much believe that you can engage in your department/university without making enemies and without seeming like a tool.

Good Enough Woman said...

I think a big part of your success, Dr. Crazy, must be that your analytical skills are out of this world. I mean, sure, most academics are very good at breaking things/ideas down into smaller parts, but you are able to identify and explain the various parts of situations and ideas (be they political or pedagogical) in amazingly clear and comprehensive detail. Also, it seems as if you can do this analysis fairly quickly and eloquently. If not, you could not blog/write as much as you do as well as you do. These analytical and expressive skills, I'm sure, serve you very well in both political and the pedagogical contexts.

I can say that your analytical skills have definitely helped me to think more effectively about the work I do, especially in the classroom.

Horace said...

I totally agree here, Dr.C. I started blogging just as I was defending my diss about 5 years ago, and have been able to process many of those tricky situations, and even broader career trajectories in a space where feedback came in ways that were less consequential.

And I think there's a "both" quality to your chicken/egg question here, since We both seem to be the kinds of people who do well to process things out loud before acting. And since I too could never keep my mouth shut and my head down, I've found that the very professional habits of mind that blogging has encouraged means that I've eaten my words less often.

So the impulse to blog is itself potential evidence of "savvy" even as the blogging polishes that set of skills.

And not for nothing, whenever grad students start asking about how to figure out stuff about the profession, I always tell them to read academic blogs, and send them here, among other places, to start their reading.

Anonymous said...

blogging has helped me figure a lot of things out, too. I don't know how I'll do with department politics, on the other hand, because I don't shut up and I don't exactly know how savvy I'm going to be. or, really, the bigger problem is that I don't shut up and I'm confident in saying what I want to say but I assume that I've made enemies and I behave accordingly. I discover later that the poeple I thought hated me don't actually hate me at all. In fact, I think I really only have two enemies in my department--one professor and one grad student.

anyway, my point is this is something I worry about in my professional future. Blogging has helped to this point, so I have hope it will continue to be useful and maybe I won't do as poorly as I think I will.

Doctor Pion said...

You know that writing about something forces you to think about it critically. After all, that is what you are teaching your students, right? So it should not be a surprise that blogging helps in this area. Anonymous give and take allows you to try out new ideas and forces you to refine and defend them. There is great value in that.